Dan and Belinda Conte, both 47, and their 25-year-old son, Mikey, were picking hedgehog mushrooms to supplement her income as a motel maid when they became lost in the woods near Gold Beach, Oregon, on January 29. They were not located by rescuers for six nights.
Tearfully, they admit that their only option to survive might have been to kill and eat their loyal pit bull, Jesse. “She’s that good a dog, she’d have done it, too,” Dan Conte told Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press.
But the family, including the dog, was saved by determined rescuers who finally located them on Saturday, February 4, when they signaled a helicopter by reflecting light from a dead cell phone screen and a knife as they stood on the edge of a deep ravine surrounded by tall timber. They were about 10 miles from Gold Beach, 330 miles south west of Portland.
In less than a half hour after the helicopter pilot spotted them and called in their location, a group of ground rescuers arrived to help. The family was airlifted to a hospital in Gold Beach. Dan Conne had a back injury and his wife, Belinda, was suffering from hypothermia and hunger, said a Curry County Sheriff’s spokesman.
The family said they had spent most of their nights in a hollow log. At various times they could see the search planes and helicopters flying very low and slowly, but the coastal forest vegetation was so dense that they could not get any of the pilots’ attention.
Then on Saturday, as they realized they could not survive much longer, Dan had make an emergency “flasher” using his wife’s Blackberry and the sheath of his knife. The family was spotted by volunteer helicopter pilot and Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor. It was his first day of searching using his own helicopter and he had Curry County Sheriff's Lt. John Ward with him.
Ranchor said he spotted Dan Conne, wearing tan bib overalls and frantically waving his arms, at the edge of the timber. Lt. Ward then marked the spot on his GPS and called the Coast Guard for a helicopter to lift the family out. At the same time he contacted a nearby ground team to give them immediate aid. Ranchor and Ward then flew back to Gold Beach to refuel.
The Coast Guard quickly arrived and winched Michael and Dan Conne out first. They then returned for Belinda. The Pit Bull, Jesse, walked out with searchers.
Dan Conne, 47, explained that on Sunday, Jan. 29, it was Belinda’s day off from her job as a motel maid, and they went back when they went back for a second load of hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms, which they pick and sell to a local buyer.
They left their four Chihuahuas at their trailer on the campground where they live. They drove to one picking spot and then returned for peanut butter sandwiches. Then they went to a new, unfamiliar spot.
Because it was a hot Sunday afternoon, they dropped their jackets by the gravel road to hunt for more hedgehog mushrooms. Those peanut-butter sandwiches were their last meal until they were found the following Saturday. They admitted that they were so hungry and desperate that they talked about sacrificing their Pit Bull and using her for food.
However, when the family did not return on Sunday, the camp host alerted authorities and the search began on Monday. On Wednesday, the Connes jeep was found. The family explained that the first night it rained and they had to build a shelter from a pile of brush. The second day, they built a flimsy structure that soon fell down. On the third day they found a hollow log big enough for all three to squeeze into and they stayed there trying to stay warm by using bark to cover the opening and hiking down to a nearby creek where they filled plastic bags with water. They had no way to start a fire, and Dan said rubbing sticks or slamming rocks together did not work like it does on TV.”
Mikey, the son, couldn't walk because he had injured his ankle and leaving him alone was not an option for the family. Dan also could hardly walk because he had hurt his back. “We just didn't know which way to go, " he said.
Dan and Belinda were released from the hospital on Sunday, but their son had suffered a sprained ankle, hypothermia and frostbite and will remain in the hospital for recovery.
While they were in the hospital, the local animal shelter had cared for the Pit Bull, Jesse, and their Chihuahuas. When the Conne’s arrived to pick them up, Jesse jumped and danced around in joy.
"I don't think we could have done it," Belinda Conne said in response to a question about actually eating their pet. "I probably would have starved to death first."